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The Lindbergh Case: A Look Back to the Future - Page 1 of 3

The Lindbergh Case: A Look Back to the Future
By Jim Fisher

“Courts are more and more distinguishing between mere opinions and clear, demonstrative evidence; between honest and competent witnesses and dishonest and incompetent fakers and pretenders, but the facts alone, even in good cases, do not often prove themselves, especially against bold perjury and resourceful advocacy.”

Albert S. Osborn, Questioned Documents, 1929

One can trace the historical trajectory of forensic science by considering three celebrated crimes: The Lizzie Borden Case in 1892; the Lindbergh Kidnapping and Murder, 1932-1935: and the O.J. Simpson case, 1995.

When Lizzie Borden was accused of hacking her stepmother and father to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home, forensic serology and the practice of matching latent fingermarks with sets of inked rolled-on prints, didn't exist. Without the capacity to scientifically identity blood, let alone group it, there was no way to positively identify the questioned hatchet as the murder weapon, or identify the stain on the dress Lizzie was seen burning shortly after the murders. Had she left a bloody thumbprint on the hatchet, it wouldn't have furthered the prosecution's case. Although she had the motive, opportunity and means to commit the crime, an absence of physical proof, a dream-team defense, and an all-male jury that couldn't conceive of an upper middle-class woman like Lizzie committing such an act, led to her acquittal.

One hundred and three years later, O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife and a young man she knew, at a time when police detectives had criminal justice degrees, blood and other bodily fluids could be individualized, and anyone who watched television know that crime scenes had to be protected, sketched, photographed, and properly processed. The physical evidence linking Simpson to the homicides, an embarrassment of riches forensically, failed to produce a conviction. (On the first day of my Criminalistics class, I ask if there are any students who think O.J. Simpson is innocent. To those students who raise their hands, I suggest another major.) As O.J. savored his verdict and received hugs from his defense team, forensic pioneers like Edmond Locard, Hans Gross, Alphonse Bertillon, and Paul Kirk must have been rioting in their graves. It was like Thomas Edison coming back to life in 1995 to a world still lit by candles.

By 1930, forensic science was so fully developed and full of promise, progressive police administrators like August Vollmer and J. Edgar Hoover believed that science and rational thinking would some day solve America's problem with crime. August Vollmer, the chief of the Berkeley Police Department, had hired a full-time criminalist in 1916, and J. Edgar Hoover made the fingerprint the unofficial logo of the FBI. Legal scholars like Dean John Wigmore of Northwestern Law School, crusaded tirelessly for court acceptance of demonstrative evidence and expert testimony. Also in the 1930's, dozens of authoritative books were published on the subjects of forensic science and scientific crime detection. (The second edition of Albert S. Osborn’s Questioned Documents was published in 1929).

A review of the Lindbergh case: On March 1, 1932, Bruno Richard Hauptmann leaned a ladder he had made against the Lindbergh house near Hopewell, New Jersey; climbed into the nursery, and made off with the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. He left his three-piece, wooden ladder, a chisel from his tool box, and a $50,000, handwritten ransom letter. The so-called “nursery note” bore a symbol or logo consisting of three interlocking circles and three small holes, a design that would distinguish Hauptmann's future extortion letters from those sent by an army of cranks, fools and opportunists trying to cash in on the crime.

The kidnapping fell under the jurisdiction of the New Jersey State Police headed by H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a skilled police administrator and graduate of West Point. His initial investigation, however, was seriously impeded by Charles Lindbergh who shut the police out of the ransom negotiation phase of the case, denying them a crack at the kidnapper when he showed up for the ransom money.

Ten days after the abduction, Lindbergh's ransom intermediary, a 72-year-old eccentric from the Bronx named John F. Condon (JAFSIE), met secretly with the kidnapper in the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery where they discussed the safe return of the baby. A week later, “Cemetery John” mailed the child's one-piece sleeping suit to Condon's house. That night Lindbergh drove to the Bronx where he identified it as the garment the baby had been wearing on the night of the kidnapping.

The baby had been missing one month when Lindbergh and Condon drove to St. Raymonds Cemetery in the Bronx with the ransom package, $50,000 consisting mostly of currency in the form of gold certificates. A record had been made of each bill's serial number. In return for the money, Lindbergh received a handwritten note containing vague directions to a boat called Nelly off the coast of Massachusetts. The boat didn't exist. The kidnapper had not only picked up the ransom money without being arrested, he had done so without producing the baby.

About a month after the ransom pay-off, a truck driver on the Hopewell-Princeton Road, when he stepped into the woods to relieve himself, found the corpse of a child in a shallow grave. The decomposing body, face down in the mud, lay two miles from the Lindbergh estate. The infant's skull had been fractured, and its hands had been carried away by animals. Investigators theorized that the baby had been dropped by the kidnapper as he came down the ladder.

At the morgue in Trenton, Col. Lindbergh identified the remains of his son. The baby's nursemaid, Betty Gow, recognized the shirt she had made for the child on the night of his abduction, producing the cloth from which it had been fashioned, and the thread she had used. The remains were furthered identified by an examination of its hair, and teeth. Moreover, the age of the corpse and the estimated time of death corresponded generally to the age of the Lindbergh baby and the date of the kidnapping. At the time, the only people who questioned the identity of the corpse as being Charles Lindbergh, Jr., were either fools, charlatans or mental defectives.

With his son dead, Col. Lindbergh removed himself from the effort to identify the killer, leaving the task to H. Norman Schwarzkopf whose best chance of catching the kidnapper involved identifying the man who had been passing the ransom bills around New York City. Once the ransom bill passer was caught, there would be plenty of physical evidence, principally the fourteen ransom notes—comprised of Germanic syntax and oddly misspelled words—connecting him to the crime. Albert S. Osborn, the dean of questioned document examination, had already established that the same person had written all of the notes, including the one left in the nursery. He had also composed a special paragraph, on its face unrelated to the kidnapping, that contained key words, numbers and phrases that when dictated to a suspect to acquire known handwriting samples, would facilitate comparison with the questioned documents.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com